When I was growing up, Thanksgiving Day was spent at my paternal grandparents’ home. We had the traditional holiday meal served in my grandmother’s large formal dining room on fine china with real crystal and real silverware. The children ate in the kitchen on less-formal dishes at a still properly set table.
Then on Friday or Saturday, we’d head to Virginia to spend time with my mom’s family. The food was just as good but the family atmosphere was much less formal. Sadly, my mom’s parents died within one year of one another before my fourteen birthday. So, it’s my paternal grandmother’s traditions that have stuck with me over the years.
My dad’s folks lived on a farm in a large two story home with six bedrooms, a large formal dining room, huge country kitchen and a formal living room my grandmother called a parlor. My dad’s mom was a real Southern lady, which isn’t to say that my mom’s mom wasn’t a lady. She was just as Southern and just as much the lady, but she was much more down to earth. She and my my maternal grandfather were a bit more country, despite the fact that they lived in town. But it’s those formal family gatherings at my paternal grandparents’ house that I fondly remember around the holidays.
My grandmother insisted we know proper table manners and how to set a proper table. She even placed the food in serving dishes on the table. But she had four sons who each had wives and between them, they produced nine children. Eventually, she started serving the food buffet style, but she still set the table with fine china, even if we did have to pick up a plate and go get in line for our food. As the family grew and expanded, tables were eventually set up in the parlor and in my grandmother’s bedroom with the youngest children still eating in the kitchen. And still, she used her best dishes and sterling silver flatware.
By the time my daughters were preteens, my grandfather’s health was failing and there were fewer and fewer formal meals. After he died, my grandmother still served food, but the crowds were smaller and the tables were much less formal. Even before his death, traditions had changed as my dad, his brothers, and their families started their own traditions. Then ten years ago, my grandmother died and the family gatherings stopped. I suppose she was the glue that held my dad’s family together. We still see one another off and own at weddings, reunions, and the occasional cookout, but not like we did when I was growing up.
After my dad’s folks died, mom hosted Thanksgiving for her own children and grandchildren. My brother, younger sister, and I are married with children, but our older sister was severely, physically handicapped. After she went to live in a group home, I occasionally hosted Thanksgiving at my house. With such a large crowd, it was informal and everyone contributed to the food with dad cooking a ham or turkey. It was a bit reminiscent of those times at my maternal grandparents’ home, but with more people.
As the next generation has grown, married, and begun having children of their own, more have split from the group. Then two years ago, my older sister died. But, we still manage to have a crowd at Thanksgiving and for the last two years, I have hosted it. And while a less formal meal is easier, for the last two years, I think I’ve been channeling my paternal grandmother. And I’ve discovered something about myself. I love hosting dinner parties!
I love cooking traditional Thanksgiving food and using china and stemware. I also love using my grandmothers’s monogrammed sterling silver flatware I inherited when she died. And I love setting an elegant table.
Of course, I don’t use linen napkins the way my grandmother did. I do own cloth napkins, but I don’t use them. However, I did add a creative touch with the paper napkins, by folding them into little fans and making turkey tail feathers and stuffing them into the napkin rings.
I have a dining room, but it’s more of an eat-in kitchen. No wall separates the kitchen from the dining room–just a bar. It’s nice for those informal meals because the room is big enough for everyone to eat together. But for larger gatherings when I want to pull out all the stops and serve Southern style the way my grandmother did, it would be nice to have a large, old fashioned dining room like hers.
Of course, there were a few differences in my meal and the ones my grandmother served. Although I had under twenty people dining, neither my table nor my dining room are big enough to place serving pieces on the table, so the food was set out buffet style on the counter. And, there was wine, something I don’t remember my grandmother EVER serving…although, she did make a mean rum cake.
Incidentally, the hutch and white table I have on my sun porch was on my grandmother’s utility porch at one time. So, I guess in a way, I really am a bit more like my paternal grandmother than my maternal one. I know I look more like her than I did my mom’s mom. My sisters were both more like her. So is my youngest daughter, even though she’s blond. She swears she doesn’t even want to own china when she gets married.
My oldest daughter, on the other hand, is more like my dad’s mom, my mom, and me. She collects lead crystal and Polish pottery, and she loves her formal dining room. So I know when I am too old to serve Thanksgiving meals, my oldest will step up to the challenge–if she isn’t still living in Germany by then.
Until then, I’ll try to make everyone happy. I’ll have my formal, sit down meal with my good china and then, we’ll add a little family fun and craziness, just like we did this year. Who says you can’t have a bit of non-traditional fun at a traditional Thanksgiving dinner?